Though they’re within easy reach of Sweden’s second city, the peaceful islands of the Gothenburg Archipelago feel like another world that’s very far removed from the mainland, writes Steve Vickers.
A sweet Swedish summer on Gothenburg’s islands
When the ferry docks at Styrsö, sending lazy whirlpools spiralling through the blue-black water, islanders huddle anxiously around the jetty, craning their necks like wild seabirds.
“Hallo hallo,” they shout, as the gangplank begins to fall. They greet new arrivals from the city with hugs and hair ruffles, then help them load their bags into a fleet of tiny golf carts. When they whir off together down the skinny coastal road, the harbour feels strangely empty. Then the ferry leaves, too, and it’s quiet enough to hear the splosh of seagulls dive-bombing for fish in the distance.
Like thousands of the smooth granite islands that speckle Sweden’s west coast, Styrsö is practically car-free. Narrow roads and green-minded locals dictate that only those with lots to carry, like Styrsö’s postman, can use petrol-powered vehicles. We arrive straight from Gothenburg, the blocky industrial city that gave the world the Volvo, and the silence that fills the harbour suddenly makes it feel impossibly far away.
We begin our journey on Vasagatan, a wide avenue in the centre of the city, where tall trees and balustraded buildings help to dapple the summer sun. The bike ride from here to Saltholmen, the port used by ferries to Styrsö, usually takes less than an hour. Get distracted by the coffee houses, antique shops and flea markets that spill out onto the pavements of the old working-class district called Haga, though, and half the afternoon can disappear.
It’s 4pm by the time we catch the boat, but the sun still floats high overhead, drenching the islands in a deep-yellow light. The 20-minute crossing to Styrsö passes quickly on the top deck, from which the whole archipelago seems to stretch out like a crumpled atlas. Visible in every direction are tiny, low-slung islets shaped during the last Ice Age. Some of these support small villages; some have a solitary red cottage or lighthouse. Others are nothing more than rest stops for sleepy seals and sawbills.
Close to the city, but often cut off from it by thick ice and snow, the island communities near Gothenburg grew slowly. Viking markets were held in some of the small harbours, and, by the 16th century, fishermen and smugglers had settled the larger islands permanently. Faith became important for those who earned a living from sea. And, unlike on the mainland, where Christianity is frequently shunned, there are many islanders who still believe.
Weeks earlier, on a trip to the southern island of Vrångö, I meet a man who – with a steely sincerity – tells me that he once met the Devil. His one-word précis of the event (“terrifying”) makes me think that he wasn’t joking.
A faded, handwritten poster on the same island makes a similarly bold claim: “In 14 days the witch on Vrångö will fix all of your acne problems,” the note reads. “Not happy, money back.”
I like the concept of a “no-win, no-fee” witch, but I’m only visiting for the day.
We’d agreed to call Bosse, the man running a B&B near Styrsö’s southern harbour, as soon as our boat arrived from Gothenburg. When he doesn’t pick up his phone, and the harbour falls silent, we decide to start exploring. The coastal road leads us towards the northern half of the island, where almost all of Styrsö’s 1,400 year-round residents live. In the summer, the population here swells, with people from the city coming to kayak, swim or go crab fishing.
We cycle past long, whispering grasses and upturned rowing boats in search of Bratten, the part of the island that first attracted tourists. At the start of the 19th century, steamboats would ferry the city’s wealthiest residents here to bathe in the cool water or lounge on the warm rocks. Today, it’s still the centre of daily life, and the island’s main meeting point. There’s a pretty garden cafe, where hot drinks and cinnamon buns are served to tables surrounded by sweet-smelling lavender. The place is packed when we arrive, but not all of the customers are happy.
“What do you mean you don’t make lattes?” said one young mum to the lady behind the till. “You mean you can’t do frothy milk?”
My companion leans in and whispers in my ear: “She must be from the city.”
Loaded up on excellent coffee (milky, but not frothy), we cycle inland, passing tennis courts, neatly ordered churchyards and tall wooden villas, their timber boards painted pale yellow and rust red. Many of the people who lived here originally have now been priced out by rich folk from the city, who see the islands as a summer escape – a place to come for crayfish parties and long evenings.
Hand-painted signs point us up a gentle hill and down the other side to Tången, a tiny fishing village with a harbour full of gleaming white sailboats. Their owners – sun-tanned and with greyish streaks in their long blonde hair – are easy enough to pick out. Even their dogs have lifejackets.
Båtebacken, a little cafe-restaurant by the water, provides a good stop for some classic west-coast food. We’ve just demolished our mountainous open sandwiches, with hand-peeled prawns poured over sourdough bread and drizzled with lemon juice, when Bosse calls us back.
There’s time for us to cycle to the B&B and snoop around its front garden, full of waxy apple and plum trees, before we hear his golf cart approaching along the coastal road.
“Here you go,” he says, dangling a key from one hand and spinning the buggy around with the other. “You’re on the second floor.” He nods towards the wooden house at the top of the garden, and looks ready to say goodbye. Then, before he takes off, he beckons us closer. “If you’re lucky,” he says, “you might spot a pair of deer living up there behind the house.”
The animals aren’t anywhere to be seen when we let ourselves into the guesthouse, or when we set off minutes later for a quick evening dip in the sea. Despite the warm air, the clear blue water around Bratten is chilly enough to make it just that – a quick dip, followed by 10 minutes of towel-wrapped shivers, watching as sailors drift by in the fading light.
With the smell of the sea still clinging to our skin, we head for Pensionat Styrsö Skäret, the island’s only hotel with a restaurant. The candlelit warmth shakes off our chills, and an accordion player begins to sing. Before long, the entire restaurant is joining in, with diners singing happily and nodding rhythmically as their eyes meet across the tables. Swedes, so often stereotyped as reserved, need surprisingly little encouragement to burst into a good singsong.
Long after we’ve eaten, the singers – mostly in their late 60s – are still in full swing. In our room at the B&B, curtains blowing open in the night air, we drift off to the distant sound of their sea shanties.
The next morning, the deer are waiting outside our door, just as Bosse had said. There are two of them, warming their golden bodies in the early morning sun and chewing happily on the thick green grass. Local message boards warn that the deer have quite an appetite. The advice to gardeners is simple: “Plant whatever you like, as long as it’s something the deer won’t eat.”
In the thick forest that covers the southern part of Styrsö, getting a glimpse of the local wildlife proves more of a challenge. Blueberry bushes, mossy rocks and chunky birch trees provide plenty of cover, so, instead of looking, we listen: for the call of a warbler or the rustle of a roe deer. But the silence we feel at the harbour has followed us into the forest.
We push on to find low stone walls, left behind by the island’s earliest fishermen. Still visible along coastlines from Norway to Finland, these walls are the remnants of temporary shelters built centuries ago, when floods of herring filled the seas, sparking a fishing boom. Today, with traditional fishing fleets dwindling, authorities are hoping that year-round tourism – rather than a quick summer rush – will provide this simple island and its neighbours with a steady source of income.
And they might just manage it: not least because getting to the islands from the city is so easy. But standing on Styrsö’s highest point, thighs sore from all the cycling, and that special silence still ringing in my ears, heading back to the city seems a lot like hard work.
Next time, I think, we’ll have to try one of those golf carts.
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